Reportage of urban culture: Robert Park and the Chicago school.
The essence of the Chicago School of Sociology, as it developed under the leadership of Robert Park in the 1920s, was "nosing around." Using the language of journalism, it en compassed the art of seeing the city as it is, not as we would like it to be. This, indeed, represented the beginning of the "naturalistic tradition" in sociology.
Rolf Lindner seeks to demonstrate how the emergence of the "New Journalism" during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries shaped the Chicago School. Mass-circulation newspapers responded to the growth of large cities. A fundamental change in the nature of the press involved the definition of what was "newsworthy": big city life in itself, that which was unusual, different, all became now the focus of attention. The goal of urban journalism was not to seek moral reform, but to expose, uncover, illuminate. Big city reportage, Lindner persuasively argues, planted the basic seeds of urban sociological research. Investigative reporting, portraying the inside of an un familiar world, served as a fruitful model for the early development of a "realistic sociology."
Park's own career as a journalist, prior to his appointment at the University of Chicago, was certainly influential in developing his view of what sociology was to be. As an urban journalist, he had already begun to approach the city as a social laboratory. The "art of looking" is essential for acquiring knowledge. Reflecting the influence as well of William James, Park was committed to the notion of "learning by experience," of the development of concepts from experience. "Acquaintance with" some social institution or social phenomenon must always precede "knowledge about." Such an epistemology was keenly cultivated in the "New Journalism."
After his transfer to the academic milieu, Park continued to see his role as similar to that of a city editor, or "a captain of inquiry." He served as leader of a team of empirical researchers--selecting topics for study, guiding the investigations, shaping the final analyses--much as what an editor did at the time for a daily metropolitan press.
In adopting what he saw as the primary advances of the new urban journalism, Park did not desert an appreciation of the contributions of European social theory. In particular, he sought intellectual guidance from the work of Simmel: actually, Lindner argues that Park "Americanized" Simmel. Society as process rather than as structure was an underlying focus throughout the Chicago School's research. Yet, Park sought to "correct" Simmel's overly-philosophical approach with a greater degree of empiricism.
Lindner points out that the Chicago sociology of the 1920s intersected two worlds--that of the reformer and that of the reporter. Urban journalism represented a new attitude toward the social world. A "reporter in depth" and a "sociological field researcher" shared a commitment to understanding that world in all its richness. Without the momentum of urban journalism, sociology would have been less able to overcome the shortcomings inherent in the social gospel ideology to which many social commentators were so passionately attached. Lindner has made a valuable contribution in underscoring this point. To dismiss the Chicago School as nothing more than "journalism in disguise," as some critics have done, represents a superficial understanding of the evolution of urban sociological analysis.
Aside from documenting his main argument, Lindner presents additional analyses which are of considerable value. For example, he briefly demonstrates how some of Park's students--for example, Nels Anderson and Clifford Shaw--in their own work adopted some of the techniques and approaches of urban reportage. The results, of course, are what remain as classics in urban sociological studies. Lindner also reviews how the increasing "interest in real life," which journalism nurtured, influenced the growth of "naturalistic literature," as evident in the novels of Theodore Dreiser.
One possible weakness in Lindner's treatise is the need for better integration of the material. The logic of presentation of the different sections is not always clear. The book could have benefited from a tighter flow between sections. Lindner is insufficiently critical of Park's inability to evolve elaborate theoretical statements from empirical observations. The "chains of empiricism" are repeatedly evident. Yet, the weakness in his epistemology is only briefly mentioned.
Overall, this is a very rich study of the origins of the Chicago School and of the intellectual influences on Robert Park. That he saw a sociologist as in reality a poet, committed through "intuition and sensitivity" to dissecting "the ossified shells of conventional thought," suggests why this discipline still has much to contribute to the study of the urban world.
Department of Social Science
University of New Brunswick / Saint John
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|Publication:||Urban History Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1997|
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